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Inspired living

How to create a quiet home


Mother reading a book

Credit: iStock

Since city living first evolved, turning down the noise has been a concern across different cultures. In ancient Rome and mediaeval Europe, strict rules were enforced about the speed of chariots and use of horse-drawn carriages at night. Cut to the modern world and noise pollution has got completely out of hand. Walking to work, in the park or through the city at lunchtime, we’re exposed to an auditory assault of noises, from building works, cars, traffic lights and trucks to large screens or speakers pumping out music or television in cafes and restaurants. Some days, the hubbub is so incessant we can’t wait to arrive home and give our ears a break. After shutting the front door on our home havens, however, the bombardment of sound does not subside.

“We listen too much to the telephone and we listen too little to nature. The wind is one of my sounds. A lonely sound, perhaps, but soothing. Everybody should have his personal sounds to listen for — sounds that will make him exhilarated and alive, or quiet and calm … As a matter of fact, one of the greatest sounds of them all — and to me it is a sound — is utter, complete silence.” ~ André Kostelanetz

High-density housing, such as flats and side-by-side semis or small suburban blocks, means there is increasing noise spill from neighbours and nearby traffic. Once inside our homes, open-plan living means the lounge and kitchen area where we spend the greatest amount of time often sounds like it’s a venue for the “Noise Olympics”. On any given evening in most homes, family tension rises amid the crescendo of competing noise from the TV or video, computer games, washing machines and cooking aids such as the dishwasher, food processor and fan-forced oven. If your home also has a more minimalist design, the wooden floors, minimal wall coverings and stainless-steel appliances will cause sounds to bounce even more throughout the space.

Unhealthy din

The health fallout of all this racket should not be underestimated. Noise does not need to wake you or be excessive to have short- and long-term impacts. Clearly, louder, more perceptible noises such as the beep of a microwave finishing or the loud shudder of an unbalanced washing machine can cause the release of adrenalin. However, repeated studies on noise pollution have found that even the low-level but incessant whiz and whir of outdoor traffic during sleep may increase blood pressure, heart rate and body movements.

A partner’s snoring may cause these health issues, too. As a result, during the daytime, mood is often lower, and learning, concentration and reaction times are impeded. Even just reducing, not eliminating, indoor noise can help to increase the amount of both slow wave and REM sleep. No matter how long you are exposed to noise overnight, habituation does not occur and, in particular, heart health (with issues like arrhythmias) may be affected.

Meanwhile, there may be detrimental effects from white or low-frequency noise: the ongoing hum or hiss given off by electrical devices, such as the TV when it is switched to standby, or the sound of the fridge, which often has an ongoing hum. Research suggests such sounds could cause constantly elevated stress levels and fight-or-flight-style responses that increase the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. If chronically repeated, this kind of response could contribute to weight gain and the development of conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

Research suggests such sounds could cause constantly elevated stress levels and fight-or-flight-style responses that increase the production of stress hormones such as cortisol.

Well-respected neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has found that, in baby rats, exposure to white noise interferes with the development of the hearing part of the brain, causing damage. This led him to conclude that white noise exposure may contribute to attention disorders in children, particularly if it is loud or up close (such as a radio in a baby’s cot).

Once you start to notice the unwelcome sounds spilling into your daily life and downtime, it will suddenly become much more evident how chronically noisy your home has become. To reduce the impact, you can make over the following areas of your home for greater solitude, silence and serenity.

Phones, screens & entertainment systems

From the irritating techno soundtracks of computer games to the shouty style of TV ads to the constant buzz or ring of mobile phones, screens transmit constant noise that can intrude on the calm flow of daily life.

Hush help

  • Have set blackout periods every day. That way, during those times, such as in the morning and during dinner or after 6pm, you are not hearing the constant zing of another email on your computer or message on your phone and then feeling you need to drop what you are doing to attend to it.
  • Establish at least one technology-free night every week, where no television programs are watched, no computer games are played and no long phone conversations occur. Instead, with your family, partner or housemate, engage in conversation, play board games or read a good book.
  • Switch off your mobile. Really. The sky won’t fall in. If this is too stressful, at least put it into sleep mode and only check it every couple of hours. At bedtime, don’t take your phone into your room.
  • Rather than a loud ringtone like salsa music or a loud retro phone ring, choose an ambient-sounding ringtone, such as a beautiful birdsong or classical guitar or a little grab of Brian Eno, a pioneer of ambient music.
  • If you’re sitting at a computer for hours, wear sound-cancelling headphones for some of that period to cut out the low-frequency hum/hiss of the computer.

Electrical appliances

Fridges, dishwashers, electric ovens and microwaves are all notorious noise-makers, with sounds that range from surges and little clangs to high-pitched whines and clunks.

Hush help

  • Choose a fridge with a smaller compressor and a well-insulated door.
  • Where possible, insulate the cavity around electrical appliances such as fridges and dishwashers, then build a second wall. This will help dampen their noise.
  • Upgrade your top-load washing machine to a front loader, or your old-style dryer to a new one with fuzzy logic. Both appliances not only use less power (and water), they are also be quieter and their cycles take less time, so they cut noise exposure.
  • When building a house, ensure that the laundry is not located directly near the living area and ensure the laundry is well insulated to reduce noise transference from the machines.
  • Choose a kettle known for its ability to boil quietly. Alternatively, if you have an open-plan living area and the kettle often seems to be an intrusion when you’re watching a movie or making conversation, relocate it to the laundry.
  • Place rubber matting under washing machines and dryers to absorb some of the vibration.

Ovens

When you’re cooking dinner at the end of a busy day, a quieter oven will make for a more relaxed you and a calmer living environment to wind down in after the day.

Hush help

  • Before you buy any appliance, such as an oven or microwave, ask to hear it working so you can assess how noisy it is. Listen to all the functions so you are clear on how noisy or grating they are. Then you can select the oven with the least offensive or inbuilt sounds.
  • Check in the manual or call the manufacturer to see if you can disarm the prompt function on your microwave or fridge if it keeps beeping prompts at you (for example, if you’ve had the door open too long or you’ve left something in the microwave).
  • Get rid of your microwave altogether. Some experts believe it has an unhealthy impact on enzymes in food. Go back to heating things in a saucepan or oven to reduce the noise.
  • When upgrading your oven, choose one with a fan-forced feature rather than an oven that is always fan-forced, as it is much noisier during cooking.

Cooling & heating systems

Whether you’re enjoying a hot shower or trying to kick back and read a book, noisy fans and heaters can become a frustrating background buzz that may be putting you on edge without you even realising it.

Hush help

  • When building a kitchen, locate the oven and stovetop near a window, or several windows if possible, and simply open them instead of using a fan.
  • Save up and invest in some good-quality fans that use much quieter technology.
  • Instead of suction fans, utilise open windows combined with much quieter wing fans on the ceiling.
  • Ensure vents and filters are well cleaned, as dust buildup can increase noise.

Slamming doors

There’s nothing worse than the sudden adrenalin rush you get from the shock of a door slamming unexpectedly.

Hush help

  • Place some weather stripping on doors (this can also keep rooms less draughty in winter). Another approach is to install hook-and-eye systems to pull the door back securely to the wall. Or use a doorstopper — they now come in all of shapes and sizes, including décor ranges that feature animals such as owls and cats.

Rattling windows & pipes

On windy nights or breezy days, rattling windows can be an enormous bugbear. Similarly, clanking pipes are unpleasant to the ear, all adding to noise pollution in your home.

Hush help

  • Detect where the hammer in your pipes is coming from and ask your plumber to fix it or secure the pipes yourself with a hammer arrester that attaches to the supply valve or pipes. This will stop the annoying clang when you switch the tap on or during each cycle change on the washing machine.
  • Install caulk around the windows to make sure they are well sealed.

Traffic

Even in country areas, people can often still hear traffic noise during the day and at night. And, if you live in a more built-up suburban or city area, the incessant rush and roar of traffic can become a constant and frustrating ostinato in your life.

Hush help

  • Invest in double- or triple-glazed windows and ensure they are well sealed.
  • Ensure existing windows are better sealed with caulk, gaskets and/or weather stripping.
  • Install acoustic curtains. These seal snugly over windows and doors to block out the sound coming through those openings.
  • Place shutters on window exteriors and close them at night.
  • Plant hedges, walls of hedge trees such as camellias and conifers or rows of trees to buffer your home from traffic noise.
  • When buying a property, make noise pollution part of your checklist. Limit your house choices to areas that are not built-up, near busy roads or under flight paths. Avoid buying near noisy places like cafes, police or fire stations, medical centres, schools, TAFEs and shopping strips. Walk around the neighbourhood at different times of the day and night to get a clear sense of any noise issues.

Sweet talk

To avoid day-to-day speech from ramping up the stress in your home, set some golden quiet-friendly rules:

1. Avoid yelling. A soft, hushed tone is far more effective.

2. Go to the person you want to speak to. Don’t stand and screech information to them from where you are.

3. Speak easy. Try to make your voice like a beautiful instrument, with soft, appealing tones.

4. Be an attentive listener — don’t speak over the top of others.

5. Nurture a good sense of humour: laughter is a magical and uplifting sound.

Noisy neighbours

When you hear your neighbours’ arguments, late-night parties, home renovating or work in the yard or garage, don’t grit your teeth or vent. Try the following:

1. Close your eyes and slow your breathing for several minutes.

2. Imagine that the sound is coming from a beautiful waterfall.

3. Embrace the sound rather than fight it.

4. Say to yourself, with each surge of the sound, “I am becoming more relaxed.”

5. Invest in good-quality earplugs.

The quiet table

Between the phone ringing, people talking and the television blaring, sitting down to dinner is becoming noisier and less relaxing. Unfortunately, the cacophony may be having a detrimental effect on your digestion and your ability to more effectively assimilate nutrients from your meal. A better approach? Embrace the ultimate in mindful eating by making your dinner time a completely noise-free period of the day.

At the Mayr Health Centre, in Austria, director Stephan Domenig insists on a silent dining room and silent service to benefit the health of guests. “Optimal digestion begins in the mouth,” explains Domenig in his book The Alkaline Cure (Penguin Books, AU$24.99). “It is crucial that food spends sufficient time in the mouth to allow it to mix properly with saliva, an important digestive juice.” Domenig also points out that silence during meals encourages people to eat more slowly and mindfully, consuming less food. Chewing properly encourages pre-digestion so important nutrients are better absorbed and the digestive system can slowly process the gentle intake of food.

Beautiful sounds

Research at Pennsylvania State University in the US has shown that natural sounds can elevate mood, particularly after exposure to stress. To create a soundscape of soothing tones in your home environment, enjoy:

  • Indoor and outdoor water features that involve running water over materials like pebbles or bamboo
  • Hanging small windchimes of different types, eg pottery, wooden, metal or bamboo, in the Garden
  • CDs of natural soundscapes, such as rain, waves, birdsong and waterfalls
  • CDs of beautiful music that includes instruments like harps, shakuhachi flutes, hushed synthesised soundscapes, acoustic guitar and gentle classical piano
  • Finding a lovely gong to signal time to get up or time for dinner
  • Planting some leafy trees in your yard around your house to act as a sound barrier and so you can listen to the sound of the wind rustling through them

Noise fallout

Studies into the impact of noise show it affects the body through stress mechanisms, leading to the release of adrenal hormones including cortisol. Exposure to chronic low-grade noise has been linked to:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Sleep quality reduction
  • Weight gain
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance
  • Anxiety
  • Hearing loss
  • Lowered immunity
  • Reduced productivity

Natural noise buffers

To reduce the general noisiness of your home and its surrounds, consider installing:

  • Tapestries on the walls
  • Natural-fibre carpets with natural rubber underlay
  • Large rugs on wooden floors
  • Curtains in heavy fabrics like velvet and wool, to separate rooms that have no doors
  • Solid wooden doors (you can find some lovely secondhand ones) to help cut the noise spill from room to room; these shut out much more noise than cheap, hollow or chipboard doors
  • Tall, thatched fences around your property


 

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.